Lessons of ESSA–or, the Epistemology of School Accountability

[Last week, at large DC state board of education member Mary Lord (who is running for re-election) sent out a missive about implementation of the new federal law called ESSA–and the public meetings the state board is holding to get feedback on that new law, which replaces No Child Left Behind.

In her emailed letter, Lord asked the following questions, before underscoring a desire for public input into answers:

“How should we hold schools accountable? What information is useful or important to you? What defines “student success”–and how will we know if we’re moving the needle in the right direction?”

One of the recipients of Lord’s email was retired DCPS teacher Erich Martel. He wrote the following in response, which I have put below, with his permission.]


Thank you for posting the schedule of ward conversations re ESSA.

You ask, “How should we hold schools accountable?

I realize you are asking the public for ideas on how to address a thorny policy imposed on us in DC and on the states by the federal government–initially and purportedly to improve education outcomes and lower the achievement gap. One of ESSA’s themes is that disrupting and dismantling our public schools and transferring our “commons” to entrepreneurs is more tolerable to us DC teachers and parents, if carried out with tools chosen by local, rather than federal, officials.

But just to answer your question: “We can’t.

For a very simple and well documented reason: only individuals can be held accountable for what they can reasonably be expected to know and demonstrate.

How do you hold any human collectivity accountable in a manner that’s both accurate for each member as well as fair to each?

Is it really accountability to test students, and then not use the results to hold them individually accountable for those results? And then combine the results from all grades into one or two school-wide averages to evaluate teachers–but not just teachers of the tested students, but all faculty members ambiguously clustered into a single collective entity called the “the school”?

And, it is further assumed that each school operates independent of its school system, as if DCPS officials’ choice of curriculum, teaching materials, mandatory pedagogies, student discipline rules and prohibitions can be dismissed as having no impact on student performance.

In military conflicts, we know that there are rules of engagement that prohibit holding an entire village “accountable” for the actions of some villagers known or believed to be responsible for the death or injury to some American soldiers. When that happens, despite the complexity of the events (“the fog of war”), we consider it wrong and celebrate the journalists who report it.

So, how did it become ethically acceptable to hold entire school faculties “accountable” for non-accountable student performance? How is it that the presumably un-American value of collective responsibility and, when punitively imposed, “collective guilt” are OK when applied to a public school?

Why does this receive almost no mention from education writers? Was it even a topic at the recent Boston EWA gathering?

Erich Martel
Retired DCPS high school teacher (Cardozo HS; Wilson HS; Phelps ACE HS)

One thought on “Lessons of ESSA–or, the Epistemology of School Accountability

  1. Great start to the How DC implements the ESSA conversation! NCLB was full of all manner of “fuzzy” concepts and it’s heartening to see one of them analyzed for its lack of any real meaning rather than just taken as granted that it is relevant to teaching and learning. ‘Critical thinking’, anyone?


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